OFFICER: We’ve analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?
TARKIN: Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.
Shahid Buttar, the man who would unseat 17-term incumbent Rep. Nancy Pelosi, — who has, since being elected to Congress in 1987, ascended to become the powerful and influential Speaker of the House — is in for a hell of a shlep.
But don’t tell him that.
“I am increasingly convinced,” he tells your humble narrator, “that not only are we going to win, but it is inevitable.”
This is a powerful statement that blurs the lines between confidence and bravado and hubris — and a claim that does not resonate with most any political player in town. Or the dictionary. But, on the heels of Pelosi’s embittered back-and-forth with the so-called “squad,” the quartet of left-leaning, female, minority first-year Congresswomen urging more drastic action be taken against the president, Buttar’s fund-raising efforts ignited.
“With Nancy Pelosi so repeatedly undermining progressive interests and enabling our criminal president,” Buttar says, “she’s practically campaigning on my behalf.”
Ouch. But the numbers: They don’t lie. Prior to July, Federal Election Commission files reveal Buttar’s finances to be just what you’d expect for the doomed opponent of a 17-term Congresswoman. As of June 30, Buttar had amassed some $48,000 over the prior three months and had about $21,000 in the bank (Pelosi, incidentally, has about $1.6 million on hand, and the fund-raising abilities of a conjurer).
But, as of July 1, things changed for Buttar: He raised $38,000 in the next two weeks from more than 1,800 individual donors. That’s a dramatic uptick. But this isn’t really about the one-time cash infusion. It’s more about the donors.
“The majority of people stay engaged and, in time, they give you more. If I have a donor, I can generally get $200 or $300 a year,” explains Adriel Hampton, a Buttar consultant specializing in online campaigning and fund-raising. Buttar now has more than 3,000 individual donors, with the lion’s share of those hopping on board in the last several weeks. “We have another eight months until the primary and another seven months after that until the general election. If we stopped amassing donors, we could still raise another $600,000. But we’re not stopping.”
Tapping into the online rage — and pocketbooks — of the nation’s left has been a bonanza for Buttar. And his campaign has been savvy about this. The URL for the “about” page on his website is https://shahidforchange.us/about-shahid-buttar-pelosis-leading-2020-challenger/. That search engine-friendly address was no accident. Disgruntled would-be donors nationwide are funneled to his page. And, Hampton notes, the majority of July’s wave of donors do not hail from here.
Hampton holds out hopes of cracking 10,000 individual donors by the third quarter of 2019 alone. Goals and plans he’d hoped to achieve by January are, suddenly, looking feasible for this summer.
Twenty bucks from a pissed-off progressive in Poughkeepsie is only going to go so far. But the Netflix-like regularity of monthly donations from thousands or tens of thousands of regular donors would enable Buttar to move from the virtual to the real world by bringing in on-the-ground staff. Hires that were slated for January 2020 are now likely to take place in August 2019.
“Volunteers only go so far. We need people managing them,” explains Hampton. “If we raise $500,000, we can put up a good challenge. But if we raise $2 million, we can beat her.”
Unlike his boss, Hampton refrains from using the “I”-word — inevitable. Rather, he says, if a confluence of factors fall in the right direction, then Buttar’s chances are elevated from Powerball-like to 1-in-1,000 to, perhaps, 1-in-5.
That sounds measured. But the historical stats regarding challengers to sitting Speakers of the House don’t inspire even measured talk: The last speaker to be dethroned by a challenger was Tom Foley in 1994. The last one before that was the sumptuously named Galusha Grow — in 1862.
San Francisco voters think highly of themselves. That’s not always warranted, but it’s likely that we are a tad more sophisticated than the Washington State electorate that dumped Foley in ’94. The man who beat Foley, a Republican named George Nethercutt, recalls instances of voters telling him they assumed he would, by right of vanquishing the Speaker, assume the speaker’s duties.
That’s not how it works, obviously; we’re not dealing with the king of Wakanda here.
It’s not likely that all too many San Francisco voters head to the polls with this dim an understanding of what’s at stake in this election — at this moment in the nation’s history — and what role Nancy Pelosi plays in the local and national political ecosystem.
Multiple messages left for the executive director of Pelosi’s re-election campaign, Jorge Aguilar, went unreturned. No surprise there (Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?). Her people didn’t want to talk about even the existence of a political challenger. And yet, unlike so many veteran politicians who’ve grown atrophied in office and take the home district for granted, Pelosi remains active on the local scene. “I’m not trying to call out the local politicians,” says a longtime city politico, “but I go to all the local events. And she or her staff are more present than a lot of the local politicians.”
While the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley would seem, at first, to be an analog to what may happen here, it isn’t exactly that. Crowley had fallen asleep at the switch in a New York district that had undergone a demographic, ideological, and generational shift. His district changed, but he didn’t. It’s hard to say that’s happened here in San Francisco. It’s certainly hard to say San Francisco, which is growing richer and whiter* by the moment, has changed in a way that would favor an anti-establishment candidate.
Your humble narrator spoke with more than half a dozen veteran political consultants, campaign managers, and others who’d run scores of elections in this town. None gave Buttar even a remote shot.
“Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker because she takes everything seriously. She is a serious person — but this is not a serious challenge,” says Eric Jaye, the consultant who steered Gavin Newsom into City Hall and subsequently helped guide Jane Kim’s state senate and mayoral campaigns. “Pelosi is going to have overwhelming support in San Francisco. Yes, there are going to be some loud voices — and it might be a bit louder on Twitter. But Pelosi is going to be re-elected in San Francisco so long as she chooses to stand for office.”
Adds Jim Stearns, the consultant who helmed Mark Leno’s mayoral campaign and is the go-to man for city progressives, “the situation with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ‘the squad’ is the opening Shahid has been looking for. And if he can take advantage of it he might gain some traction. But that puts him from the level of zero visibility to some visibility.”
Pelosi, Stearns continues, has cultivated relationships with city progressives like former Mission Supervisor David Campos, now the chair of the county Democratic Party. “For somebody to have a shot at getting Pelosi, they have to split off some progressive Democrats,” Stearns says.
And, so far, that hasn’t happened.
“Look, these are personal issues for me. I was in a detention camp as a child,” says Campos. “I do not support funding ICE. I support impeachment. But, with that said, I am a strong supporter of Nancy Pelosi. I want someone who can effectively move forward an agenda in Congress. I am unapologetic about my progressive views, but I am also unapologetic about my support for Nancy Pelosi.”
Hampton notes that a March 2020 California primary in which Bernie Sanders is on the ballot bodes well for his candidate. And yet, it’s hard to imagine Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or other candidates with cachet on the left coming to town to stump for votes and cash — and not paying fealty to 17-term incumbent Nancy Pelosi, who could help them with both of those things.
And while Buttar’s status as a serious Constitutional lawyer and digital privacy advocate will mollify moderate-leaning voters who wish Pelosi was more aggressively pursuing the impeachment option, his status as a Burning Man figure, spoken-word poet, and electronic dance music performer will likely not. Buttar’s Buckaroo Banzai breadth of interests is probably most appealing to those already inclined to vote for him.
Inevitable means different things to different people, it would seem.
And — inevitably — Buttar doesn’t express much concern with the Don Quixote-like role assigned to his campaign by this city’s political powers-that-be.
“I look forward,” he says, “to eating all their lunches.”
*As seen in the comments below, yes, San Francisco is actually a shade less white than it was in 2010. It is, however, far richer. In short, there has not been a demographic transformation of the sort that occurred in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district — and this city’s vast influx of wealth has, as noted in the piece, not been a godsend for anti-establishment politics.